Guide: How to Train for a Marathon on an Elliptical

As a committed runner, my first few years of gym sent me straight past the row of ellipticals – strange stepping machines with upright oars that bore no evident resemblance to my go-to treadmill. But insights from an injured runner have been revealing, and my ignorance of elliptical power has been shed.

The elliptical machine boosts marathon runners’ aerobic capacity. Its orbital stepping movement targets the muscles that power long-distance runs. The hydraulic steps minimize impact strain, which makes the machine ideal for runners coping with joint or back injuries.

To benefit from this machine, we have to consider why it delivers its benefits. We must also know the proper setup and use of the elliptical. This includes the planned integration of elliptical workouts into a marathon preparation season.

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woman using elliptical

How To Use An Elliptical to Train For a Marathon

Preparation for a marathon follows a structured pattern. This preparation is so that the body adapts to the shock of the high weekly mileage required to prepare for a 26-mile run.

The best preparation happens where the race is going to happen or on similar terrain. There will be sessions of strength training in the gym. And core-building yoga. The elliptical has a role to play in each stage.

Base Building

In the base-building stage, the runner develops an initial level of fitness in preparation for the steep accumulation ahead. Usually, this follows a break – or total absence – from running. The small amounts of exercise should be varied to include easy runs, long runs, and form drills.

The elliptical helps with the form drills, as easy elliptical sessions key the runner into proper form, which might have been forgotten during a protracted break (or never learned at all, in the case of new marathoners).

Target 20 minute easy to moderate sessions once or twice a week. Emphasize proper form, including arm swing.

The Build-up

In the build-up to the peak, the runner increases weekly mileage as well as intensity. Overall mileage will increase 10% per week.

At this stage, more challenging elliptical workouts are introduced. The marathon plan will include tempo runs, which can be mimicked on the elliptical. Once a week, have a 20-minute workout on a high-moderate setting.

Here the runner targets her aerobic threshold – roughly the level at which running becomes hard, and it is impossible to have a comfortable, sustained conversation. By running slightly below this, the threshold is trained – which means that it raises slightly. By training in this way over time, the runner develops the ability to endure at higher levels of intensity for longer periods.

The Peak

In the peak training phase, the gloves come off. Weekly mileage will have reached a targeted high depending on the runner’s achievable level of targeted performance. The weekly long run will have averaged above half-marathon distance, peaking at around 18 miles.

During this phase, schedule two kinds of elliptical sessions: form drills and HIIT.

Form drills can happen two to three times a week. These are easy 10–20-minute drills in which the goal is simply to entrench proper running form. Add them to the warmup stage of a more extensive gym session or after a long run. Schedule these sessions, and if you have an elliptical in the home, sneak in some opportunistic extra sessions. They won’t add to your physical stress but will train the efficient deportment that saves energy in the long run.

HIIT is a staple peak drill as it develops aerobic capacity. Since the intensity wears the muscle, this also trains the body to run on sore legs – a physical skill and mental acuity that is sorely needed in the last third of a marathon.

Hit the hard HIIT drill given further below twice a week.

The Taper

The marginal physiological benefits of exercise in the last two weeks of training will not be available by race day. You need to balance between keeping the body in shape and stressing it for no immediate benefit. The taper achieves this by steadily reducing the volume and intensity of workouts as race day approaches.

Think of the taper as the base build in reverse. Here elliptical work should be moderate HIIT at the start, graduating to easy form-maintenance workouts. Two sessions per week are adequate. There is no absolute gradient for the decline. What matters is to calibrate the easing up of elliptical work to the decaying shape of the overall marathon program.


Recovery runs restore spent muscle tissue. Immediately following the marathon, you can take a break of one or two weeks. At the end of this, there might still be a residue of wear on the joints.

Easy elliptical workouts are ideal for runners still smarting after a grueling marathon. Focus on gentle workouts, as in the build-up phase. Initially, keep them super-easy, with low resistance levels on the pedals. The point here is simply to get the body moving, build the aerobes, and key in form. This continued use of the body combats atrophy and stimulates the building that is a key to recovery.

Elliptical Benefits to Marathoners

A study by scientists at the University of Nebraska (source) considered whether there was any difference between treadmills and ellipticals with regard to three marathon performance indicators:

woman using elliptical
  • Oxygen Consumption
  • Energy Expenditure
  • Heart Rate

A series of controlled experiments showed that for males and females, there were no differences in the measured variables between the two devices.

This study shows that training on an elliptical can be an effective substitute for running in some cases.

The benefits to marathoners are broken down into six categories. They correspond to the areas that a marathoner develops over the course of a training season.

Aerobic Capacity

Since the elliptical mimics many of the muscles used for running, it is an excellent tool for developing aerobic capacity. VO2Max – the volume of oxygen that a runner is able to burn in a session, is a number you can track that shows your endurance progress.

All of the other aerobic training benefits, from lower resting heart rate, through deepening of capillary beds to mitochondrial enhancement, are available through the use of this nifty machine.

Elliptical machines are used in high-intensity interval training (HIIT). In these sessions, the runner ramps up the resistance and powers through the stepping for timed intervals. In-between, there are short easier recovery intervals, and the cycle repeats.

Research has confirmed that this is an effective way to train the aerobic threshold – the level of exertion above which fat-burning ensues. Since the body requires lots of oxygen to burn fat, runners with a higher aerobic threshold are better able to budget their oxygen – the supply of which is effectively limited by VO2Max.

Muscle Toning

The elliptical has been shown to work the critical muscle groups that drive marathon performance: The glutes, the quads, the hip flexors, and the core.

The glutes are the largest muscle group in the body, and successful engagement creates efficient propulsion when running. By ramping up the elevation on the elliptical, the power of the glutes is improved.

The flexion caused by the quadriceps helps knee lift and extension. Taking deep steps on the elliptical helps these.

A neglected benefit of the elliptical is that it trains balance. It simply is hard to stay engaged with a poor sense of balance. Channeling the even keel requires – and builds – a strong core. This delivers benefits during the marathon, as a stable core leads to running efficiencies.


The blending of resistance training and aerobic exercise generates calorie-burning benefits. For more resistance, the pedal pressure can be ramped up along a wide range at the runner’s direction.

Apart from weight loss (yes!), the body’s fat-burning capacity is trained, which leads to more efficient generation of energy on runs in the long term.


The proper running form breaks down into leg work, upper body comportment, and posture.


When Larry Miller patented the elliptical in 2004 (source), he was inspired by the shape of his daughter’s steps in a film he took of her running alongside his car. Miller noticed that her feet described ellipses and set about developing a machine that would entrench that.

Circular running, chi running, and pose running are different running philosophies that establish a common truth: running efficiency requires that the feet trace a rolling wheel as the runner moves. At the same time, it is always possible to shuffle and slouch on a treadmill, the elliptical forces proper form. This entrenches the behavior, and an elliptically trained marathoner is better equipped to maintain proper circular form in the tail-end stages of a marathon when fatigue bites at the hips.

Upper Body

In running, the arms act as a counterweight to the legs, swinging in contra direction to offset the sideways momentum. Three common running arm mistakes are under swinging, overswinging and laterally crossing the arms.

Because runners surge forward with one leg at a time, each step creates a force along a diagonal vector moving inward from the moving leg. Left uncancelled, this force moves the body a little bit to the side. Since the goal is to run forward, this sideways motion creates wasted movement, as the forward momentum is subtracted.

In short, underswinging runners move in a slight wiggle, which while undetected to the eye wastes time and energy on unnecessary sideways movement.

Conversely, overly aggressive swinging of the arms overcompensates on the leg movement. Here the upper body is responsible for sideways movement. This also arises from even moderate swinging of the arms across the body, as this does nothing to optimize forward propulsion.

When training on the elliptical, resist using the lateral bars for balance and support. Instead hold the upright oars.

The elliptical machine can help you break an overswinging or underswinging habit.

The elliptical machine oar arms are designed to move in tandem with the steps. The aggressive swinging of the oars leads to a higher step rate. And vice versa. The perfect correlation breaks under and overswinging. Since the oars move in straightforward paths, this is a great way to break a cross-swinging habit if you want one.


If you lean on the horizontal bars, it is possible to work the elliptical with poor running posture. But holding onto the vertical oars keys the runner to maintain an upright posture, key to marathoning. It is harder to maintain a forward tilt, and your sessions on the treadmill or the road will be a better place to do that. But the elliptical’s benefit of training to “run tall” remains.


The treadmill is designed to absorb some impact shock. But because runners still pound the ground as they do on the road, impact shock is reduced but not eliminated. This largely vertical impact creates a counterforce that is absorbed by our skeletons.

With the elliptical, the runner’s footrests permanently on the pedals, eliminating impact shock altogether. There is no counterforce for the joints and bones to endure. This makes the elliptical a great instrument for injured runners.

Instead of detraining, while waiting for an injury to heal, you can have a no-impact alternative that allows you to train running form, maintain and build aerobic capacity while allowing the healing of the injury to run its course.


Practical constraints can play with the runner’s psychology. Wet weather may put paid to training plans. Having an indoor alternative can keep things on track and prevent the frustration of foiled training plans—the elliptical steps up really well in this regard.

On the other hand, uninterrupted training over a long period may be boring. Sticking to an unvaried regime might limit growth, as the body adapts to the known stresses of a familiar training regime. The cross-training character of the elliptical mixes things up. It adds variety and interest to the training plan and challenges the body in a few new ways.

How to Use an Elliptical

Use of the elliptical involves stepping and pumping.

  1. First, prime the machine with the appropriate resistance, duration, and elevation settings.
  2. Mount the machine by placing a foot on each pedal, while holding onto the support handles.
  3. Start pedaling slowly.
  4. When you’ve developed a rhythm, hold onto the vertical oars, keeping your arms at the same deportment relative to your body as you would when running.
Elliptical by itself

Speed = cadence * stride. Cadence is the number of times your foot lands per minute. Stride is the distance between successive landings. While a sprinter works to maximize both, endurance runners seek an optimal balance with shorter strides and a higher cadence. An elliptical is a great tool for working on each.

(A lot of the numbers from

Taking deeper steps with the pedal increases stride. Shallower steps decrease the stride length. Your elliptical might monitor the resultant cadence. This will be a number in the range 140-200. Target a cadence in the 170-180 range. If you’re far below, pick a target cadence a few points above your current average and train until you’re comfortable achieving that target.

Work the target up over time until it falls into the 170-180 range. If you find that higher cadence is comfortable with reasonable resistance, measure your step rate during mid-length runs on the road. If it accords you might be a gifted or well-trained runner. If your road cadence is much lower, it is a sign that you’re not using the elliptical correctly. In that case, refer again to this article.

The elliptical is unlike anything you’ve used before. The first few times may be tricky but be patient. Keep the settings easy as you settle in.

Setup and Maintenance

If you’ve just bought a home machine, your first workout might involve installation. This is best handled by a professional, and manufacturers usually provide installation as a service. Failing that, certified you can always find an independent installer. An elliptical trainer has heavy parts, that need to be synchronized in order to deliver benefits to the user. There can potentially be a steep cost to getting it wrong.

If you’re a home user, be sure to place a rubber equipment mat underneath the machine. In addition to protecting your carpet or floorboards, this will prevent dust from entering the machine, saving you from downtime and maintenance dollars.

All cardio equipment providers stock the various parts that may break over time. These parts range from batteries, caps fuses to the motherboard and more. If your online searches lead nowhere, ask your local gym to refer a technical vendor.


Pay attention to the programming options of your machine. These will vary between makes and models and determine combinations of settings. Knowing which programs, you have will better enable you to coordinate the use of the machine with your marathon training plan. Look out for the following built-in programs:

  • Hill runs: These offer higher resistance levels, simulating the stress of hill climbing. Sustained hill runs are good for building strength.
  • Ladders: These are HIIT intervals in which the interval length increases to a crescendo and then decreases. Be sure that the accompanying pressure settings are appropriate for your current level of fitness.
  • Random elevation drills: These are hill runs that simulate the real-world environment by mixing elevations. This is good for practicing the variations in form that are required for transitioning between elevations on the road.
  • Threshold/Tempo drills: These aerobic drills increase your capacity and efficiency of energy use. Be sure to get the full benefit by maintaining proper form throughout.
  • Virtual simulations: These provide visualization of the profiled terrain. They are great for adding spice to the experience and are available only on higher-end machines.

Whichever program and settings you choose, start out by asking yourself what you seek to achieve. Match the program to that.


As mentioned above, the elliptical is an excellent tool for form drills. Proper form maximizes efficiency. By minimizing wasted energy, the efficient runner is able to travel further faster.

One of the challenges of using the elliptical is that it can be hard to maintain a forward lean. Proper marathon form requires a slight forward tilt – from the ankles. This allows gravity to contribute towards the runner’s forward momentum. Be intentional in maintaining a forward lean throughout.

“Sitting in the saddle” is a buckled posture that many endurance runners resort to later in the race as a result of muscular fatigue. It involves excessive knee flexion and forward-leaning at the hips. This collapse can happen on the elliptical, too, when short, shallow steps increase the cadence and lighten the step. Instead of doing this, think of the strain as practice for running on tired legs. If you master this, then you’ll have cues for fighting saddle-sitting in the actual race.

It is tempting to work through the resistance by shifting body weight to the side of the stepping leg. This creates a ski-like sideways motion that hurts your running form. The motion of a marathoner’s body should be forward, not side to side. Even a little swaying over the course of 26 miles is a massive waste of energy and non-functional muscular strain. Don’t cultivate this gait-busting habit by cheating on the elliptical.

Don’t neglect the upper body. In addition to proper posture, remember to keep your arms in the running position. The shoulders should be relaxed at all times.


Be sure that the height settings, if applicable, are tailored to your body. The grips on the oars should allow a paddling motion that shadows the runner’s arm swing. Gripping the oars too high will introduce a non-functional strain on the upper body. In addition to wasting energy, this will strain the body without payoff. It will work against the cultivation of proper arm swing.

The next key variable is resistance. The level of resistance targeted should always be dictated by the specific workout and its role in your training regimen. Form drills want lighter resistance. But not so easy that the legs are propelled by the momentum of the paddles.

If you feel that your legs are moved by the arms pumping the paddles, this is a sign of too low resistance.

HIIT wants higher resistance, but not so much that the stress is entirely on your legs and not your aerobic system. You should work up a proper sweat before your legs give in.

Some ellipticals allow for variation of the incline. In a HIIT routine, you want to play with variations. Hill runs want a higher incline. In general (and this applies to treadmills, too), I prefer elevation on all workouts. Being accustomed to a slight incline means that your body calibrates hills off a higher base and will be less shocked by them in real terrain.

Elliptical Drills for Runners

As a keen marathoner, you will have a performance-calibrated plan that mixes a variety of drills to get a prepared version of yourself to the start line. Be sure to tailor your elliptical drills to match your training. As you acquaint yourself with the machine, try the following drills for starters.


Perform these at under 75% of your maximum heart rate. Keep the resistance minimal and the elevation low. Here, focus on getting a cadence equivalent to 180 steps per minute. Your screen might display cadence in terms of rotations – roughly half the step rate. Initially, the point behind these easy drills is to develop confidence using the machine. During recovery and taper, they are geared towards maintaining shape and keeping good form keyed in.


Here, the heart rate goes up to 90% of max. Keep the cadence up but add a noticeable incline. The pressure should be at a level where resistance is felt. The duration should be adjusted to exercise long enough to feel tired – but not exhausted – by the workout.


Now we exercise up to the maximum heart rate. Lifting the heart rate is especially apt for tempo workouts and the hard intervals in HIIT. Step up the pressure and keep the cadence high. A long run on high elevation is an excellent way to build strength and endurance and complement the marathon-training weekend long run.

By including an elliptical in the training repertoire, marathoners get a range of benefits from cardiovascular training to motivation. The differences between an elliptical machine and the tarmac will round out the athlete’s training and increase its variation. Instead of the umpteenth treadmill trudge, try this cross-fit enhancer. Best of all, it’s fun.



Peter is a software developer who loves to take every opportunity to go outside that he can get. Peter grew up going on long backpacking excursions with his family every Summer and now enjoys staying at the beautiful Texas State Parks and swimming in the amazing Texas Rivers.

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